Before we started building furniture, our house was beginning to look a lot more like a yoga studio instead of, well, a house. To be fair, most normal houses built today are supposed to be empty, but because this is a tiny house and a single Ikea bedside table would probably fill the entire living room, we had to get smart about our furnishings. We knew we were going to have to build our own furniture, and because my dad has a wood-shop I had a few theories on how to make boxes, we ultimately ended up doing was what we do best: completely winging it.
Because we’re 20 somethings, we needed a futon. Literally no other horizontal platform would do unless it was taco shaped and sounded exotic. Being practical, we decided that a tacoshapedcouchmass was nothing unless it could also act as storage for every possession we had to live with but couldn’t be bothered to look at every day. What I mean to say is we decided to build an overly complicated couch and closet from scratch, and, because we nurture a deep hatred for free time, we also decided that it had to act as a guest bed. Simples!
Like the capable carpenters we aspire to become, we made sure to measure the space at least three discreet times and used these measurements to draft a simple box. The final couch would be L-shaped and was supposed to occupy a space beneath our largest front window and against one of our long walls. Sierra’s plan was to create what she called “a nook” where the shortest side of the couch would be walled tucked into the corner of the house to form a comfy spot for sipping tea (other hot beverages are available). Legally speaking, we had to include an enviable nook in our house, or else we wouldn’t be able to post pictures of our house on Instagram, Pinterest, or Snapchat without levying huge fines.
From the beginning of this project, we decided that the couch would have to Michael Bay into some kind of bed. Ultimately, we concluded that the couch would simply look like a big box with a lid, and a panel on the front of the couch would unfold into a platform for sleeping. With that in mind, we started dredging up as much scrap plywood as we could find and milling it to the right sizes. We used a few left over door and piano hinges for the lids.
The box had to be built in two separate parts so it could fit through the door, and logistically speaking, this was probably for the best, because even just the first part weighed nearly too much for both Sierra and myself to carry. Of course, once we finally wrestled the box inside the house, we realized that we had forgotten to cut the back of the couch to fit around the wheel well. Woops. 30 minutes and about a pound of sawdust later, the first half slipped perfectly into place. Next was only a matter of measuring our remaining space, and building a box to fill it.
Once we had installed both halves, I set to work building a panel that would unfold from front of the couch and drop down two legs to support itself and the weight of an exotic taco mattress. I could never seem to get the bench to hold much weight without the folding supports buckling, so I decided to make a piece of faux trim that would pop off of the floor and prop up the bench when it was in use. After that, the couch was practically done! Overall, I feel pretty pleased with it, even if it is a little rough around the edges. At the very least, the box itself is large and dark enough for me to take a nap in if I need it.
Take a moment and think about a tiny house. Now back to me. Now back to the tiny house. (Just kidding.) Now think about all the possessions you’d need to put in it. Your mind might wander to kitchen gear and a toothbrush, but what about clothing, a router, a modem, laundry, and a full-length mirror? Where can you keep small things like that? Unfortunately, we find that a perplexing number of tiny houses seem to lack simple storage for daily items. That’s where we got to thinking, and building. Behold our new closet!
We recently embarked on building more wallsin our tiny house. (Because, you know, every house needs more walls.) We decided to turn this closet into a wall as well!
About a year ago I (Sierra) made up a design for our closet, based on a combination of designs I had seen in other tiny homes. We decided we wanted to have our closet on the back of the bathroom wall. While this took a little room in our bathroom, it was well worth it to have that closet space. We’ve noticed on a lot of tiny house TV that show the builders/designers often forget about clothing storage. They’ll remember storage for kitchen gear and hobbies, but clothing is often overlooked or at best tacked on at the end. We’ve seen people who move into the TV houses who have to buy storage solutions for their most basic amenities! We wanted to make sure we had the space we needed (which luckily isn’t much since we’re both minimalists and we’ve been paring downfor years), plus we put in a little extra just in case we lapse in our minimalism…
As you can see in the photo above, there are shelves in the top part of the closet. Those are for folded clothes. Being the detail-oriented person I am, I folded all of my clothes and double-checked to make sure they would fit when I was designing the cabinet. (Same for Drew’s, but he kind of just made an “eh, it’ll fit” statement when he looked at his. But to be fair, he does have less clothing than I do.)
I did the same process with hanging clothes, which hang on a rung in the open space in the bottom of the closet:
Now check out the bottom of the closet. The compartment on the left is for the modem/router for our Internet. We knew we needed a hidden space for those that was out of the way that wasn’t taking up space in our nook couch. (Details on our couch will be in a future post.)
On the right is a box where we’re going to put our laundry. We’re going to build up the trim on the box to match the height of the Internet box, and then install doors on the front of the entire closet. On the inside of one of the doors we’re going to install a full length mirror:
Ain’t it a beaut?
Now the fun part… Building it all!
It took us around 4 full days of working for the closet to be finished. We took 3/4″ pre-finished maple plywood and created a basic box that fit our maximum exterior dimensions. Then we installed more plywood for shelving. We lucked out in that both sides of our closet would be covered, so we could screw in our shelves for a permanent fit and we could still hide the screw holes. We made sure that the shelving was set back ¾” from our maximum depth so that we could add trim on the edges to hide the layered core of plywood.
We then added in the poplar rod for the hanging clothes and built the router/modem box in place. We added a hinge to the box for easy access. It actually makes for a cool place to sit in the closet. Not that you’d ever want to, but hey.
Then the fun part was installing the closet in the house! And by fun I mean tricky. The problem was that our loft beams above the closet required us to cut down our design by a few inches. We wanted our closet to go all the way up to the loft boards for extra room, but we couldn’t install the closet around the loft beams. So we instead cut the height of the closet down to fit underneath the loft.
Then we screwed the box into the floor, the house wall, and into the bathroom pocket door wall to secure it. Then it was time for siding!
We went about installing the same boards we used for our walls along both sides. We had to use shorter screws in order to make sure we didn’t accidentally punch through the frame’s very thin wood and into the cavity where the door was.
We decided our next project would be building the the bathroom wall. It was the next “big thing” we needed to have in our house so we could start measuring and drafting up plans for our closets, one of which would actually make up the back wall to the bathroom. We already installed the short wall that surrounded our tub, so now we needed to extend that wall over to the other end of the loft. This was a huge change for us! The kitchen and bathroom became two different and distinct rooms, and the final form of our interior was finally beginning to take shape.
So we went to the blue store (one of our many journeys there) to get some ideas and look around for supplies.
Now, you need to understand something here. We go there ALL THE TIME, And that is NOT an understatement. Pretty much every day we go there to buy something. (Seriously, we should buy stock in their company.) Exhibit A: Drew and I were there around 8:30pm one night looking for god knows what. We were both exhausted and covered in sawdust. Drew was looking for something in the electrical aisle, and suddenly, a young employee said, jokingly, “I feel like I see you guys here every day. Do you live in here?” Note, we’ve never seen this guy there before (and trust me, we recognize workers. We know which ones know their stuff and which ones are hard of hearing and therefore shout at us when answering our questions.) Drew replied “Yeah, we practically do live here at this point.” I guess we don’t blend in anymore…
Anyway, we found the door section and discovered they had pre-made pocket door frames with the rolling track and everything we needed to put up a wall in our house in less than a day. We found one that was just large enough for a 24″ door and discovered we could make that fit perfectly in our space. But what about the door itself? We looked at their selection and found some solid wood doors that would have been perfect, only they were a bit too tall for the space under our loft. They were the perfect width though. So, we decided to get one anyway and cut it down. Simple enough.
What we both liked about this door was that it had glass panes! It would look really nice from the kitchen and would still let bathroom light pour into the kitchen. The problem? The glass was see-through…
We just couldn’t find any with frosted glass panes, so, as we do, we got creative.
So here’s the plan: we’re going to frost the glass ourselves and then paint some sort of mural on the glass to add some style. It’ll be pretty cool! We plan to shelve this project for a little while, since we have so many more pressing projects to work on at the moment. We’re looking forward to it though!
Okay. So we have our materials. Time to install!
Luckily the frame was basically ready to install. Like most door frames on the market it was just too tall for our tiny house, but since the frame was made out of just wood we could take it apart, cut it to height, and then put it back together.
Once the frame was the right height, it was a simple matter of sliding it into place and then nailing it to our loft beams and floor. We did have to cut small pieces of a 4×4 beam to act as a spacer above the pocket door frame, but it was a very quick process.
Next, all we had to do was add a door stop. Drew made one up from a piece of cherry and screwed it into place, and that was it.
Next we’ll be working on the closet on the back of the bathroom wall. More to come!
And by little fan, we mean little. Our fan is 24 inches across. Tiny indeed! We originally bought a 30″ wide fan, thinking that would fit, but then discovered there was a very real danger of hitting it on the way into the loft. So we had to rethink things a bit.
The fan itself is made by Monte Carlo, and we had to order it online. Its reviews said it had a lot of power for being just a little fan. We sure hope that is true; this is our only source of AC at the moment! We do plan on building a DIY air conditioner later on, but that’s a topic for a future blog post. (PS. You can find anything on the Internet.)
Anyway, even for being so small, it was actually really tricky to install. It was surprisingly more tricky than our bathroom fan (aka the ‘fart fan’, as our friend called it) and that one was installed through a wall. The trickiest part about tiny fans in tiny houses is, and always will be, finding the right parts. Allow me to explain: tiny houses like ours have a beautiful pitched roof which looks great, but hanging a fan from the ceiling is a no-go unless you can buy a cathedral roof kit, which is obviously sold separately.
I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say we had to pull up a part of our roof panels, buy a special fan kit for cathedral style roofs, buy a new electrical box, rewire the lines to the fan, and buy a specialty support rod off of the Internet. It was a bunch of work! But the end result was worth it.
And now we have a lovely fan! Another project down!
We’re glad to have another important part of the house finished, and this actually happened to be the last large electrical feature we needed to install before we could test electrical. Next, we only need to put in one light in the bathroom, and a few switches and outlets! Be on the lookout for our future post on testing our electrical system!
There came a day where there was absolutely nothing we could think of to do on the house. No, not because we were finished (we wish), but because everything was waiting on something else to be done before we could continue. For example, we couldn’t finish paneling the ceiling because we were waiting on our wood-stove to arrive so we would know where the chimney goes. We also couldn’t do any more on the bathroom because we needed to order stainless steel sheet metal.
So, we decided to get a head start on trim.
Why not, right?
We decided on 2 3/4″ wide by 3/4″ thick boards for our windows. Remember, we’re making this all by hand, so we have no idea what industry standards are for these things. After some research, we found we were, luckily, in the ballpark. We decided on using poplar wood for a few reasons. For one, poplar is a lighter, inexpensive wood that is easier to work with compared to other hardwoods. We definitely appreciate that. And next, my favorite reason, is that we got to salvage some poplar wood that means something to me.
I (Sierra) was one of those kids who was outside all the time, playing tag, building forts, having water wars (my house was known for awesome squirt gun water fights) and having other random outdoor adventures. Back then, there was an empty, overgrown plot of land in my neighborhood that my friends and I liked to explore. In the center of it was a giant poplar tree (you see where this is going). It was simply gorgeous. You’d walk by the lot and your eye would immediately be drawn to it. A lot of wildlife lived there too, and apparently once when I was out of town it was struck by lightning (shook the ground, the neighbors said). Anyway, when I became an adult (though I’m still trying to figure out what that means), a builder bought the lot and cut down the tree. He decided to mill the wood himself and use it for the interior trim of his own new house. And let me tell you it is beautiful! Anyway, I told him about my tiny house project and he kindly offered to give us some of his leftover wood from that tree. So for me, having it in the house is kind of like having part of my childhood home with me wherever I go.
Cue “D’awww…” in the audience.
Okay, the hokey moment is over. Back to the originally scheduled programming.
So we milled the wood down and created the trim boards. Next we wanted to sand them and then apply a color. A few years ago we visited a tiny house where the builder gave us the idea to apply paint and then wipe it off in order to still show the grain pattern and natural beauty of the wood. This is an old wood finishing technique called “pickling”. The term comes from a 16th century technique of whitewashing woods with caustic lime and other such corrosive materials so as to make wood resistant to insects. The process left behind a light, brushed on look that made the wood seem both aged and somewhat ethereal. That look really is making a comeback today, but we didn’t need to use harsh chemicals to achieve a similar look. The process today simply involves brushing on a coat of paint, and then wiping it off before it dries. You can also lightly sand the paint off for the same effect. So we decided to give it a shot with our green trim paint!
And here is the result! We like it. It will match the green accents we plan to have throughout the house. We’re waiting to add trim in the bathroom and kitchen because we’ll need to work around the counter, back-splash, and bathroom sink, but so far so good! It’s coming together!
Electrical was a bit more complicated than plumbing. For one, we had to determine ALL the fixtures we’d be using, where exactly they would be going, how much power they would draw, etc. Lighting the great room turned out to be the most difficult. Like we’ve mentioned in earlier posts, we are looking for low impact, and off-grid ready appliances, so we shopped around for LED lights. Drew’s parents had a large collection of left-over light fixtures from their kitchen and bath business that we were free to choose from. These came in handy on several occasions.
We thought about having recessed can lights like traditional homes, but decided against it once we realized that the recessed part of the light almost always required a 6” deep ceiling stud, which we simply did not have room for in our 2×4 roof. We found a large box of task lights in Drew’s parents’ shop that we initially thought would be perfect for the great room. Drew rigged up a few lights and hung them up on the ceiling. For 12v lights, they lit the room up like they were 60 watts bulbs! They looked great in the space, but they seemed to heat up rather quickly, which we thought was odd for LED lights until we realized they were xenon lights. Oh well…
Then we saw a design online where a tiny home used LED strips along the tops of the walls on either side of the great room. It lit the room up with the beautiful looking glow of reflected indirect light. Perfect! We definitely want to use LED because it uses less energy and produces less heat.
We chose a very small ceiling fan (that hopefully won’t hit our walls when it spins), two wall sconces for the dormer walls, one sconce for over the half circle window, a set of decorative track lights for the nook, two kitchen lights, and a sconce for the bathroom. Plus, we bought an outdoor light for the front door as well. We lucked out with the track lights because a builder Drew ran into had some extra lighting he didn’t need, so he gave it to us. (Thanks again!)
We decided to run our house on 120 volts AC because this was the most common, most easily managed type of electrical setup we could create for ourselves. Simply put, more, better, and cheaper appliances are available when you use a traditional electrical load. This means you have more choices for energy saving appliances once you start looking for them. Since we had a tight space for our kitchen, we decided to splurge on an under-counter refrigerator that was much larger than your usual dorm fridge.
It should be mentioned that there are some great and ingenious food cooling solutions for totally off-the grid homes. We’ve seen propane powered fridges, flexible power fridges that can take 110v AC and 12v DC. There was even a time we were convinced we were going to convert an old chest freezer into a super-efficient refrigerator that used less than $12 worth of power in an entire year. (Thank you Internet.) However, in the end, we decided we could afford a larger, foodie-friendly fridge at the cost of an extra solar battery or two once we made the switch.
Speaking of solar, we are looking into using a portable all-in-one solar station called the SolMan. It is a box that contains all of the batteries, solar panels, and related equipment needed to charge a few computers and run a few small appliances off the grid. It can be upgraded with more battery storage or solar panels and all you need to hook your house up to it is an extension cord! There is absolutely no need to install those puppies on your roof and clench your stomach (and your wallet) every time you drive your house under an exceptionally low-looking overpass.
Because we were mentally exhausted from all the plumbing research, and we were both busy with jobs and life, we decided to play it safe and hire an electrician for this part. Because Drew’s parents work in the construction business, they knew a contractor that could help. And that’s how we met Tom.
Actually, that’s a bit misleading. I (Sierra) have never actually met Tom. For all I know, Tom doesn’t exist and never has existed. Due to busy work scheduling on my end, Drew is the only one who ever actually interacted with him. Ever. Drew also tends have uncanny knack for understanding technical stuff, so as far as I know Drew made Tom up and did all the electrical himself. It’s become a running joke with us.
So Drew met with Tom and showed him a diagram he’d mapped out of our electrical system. Tom then gave us some wire to get started (thanks Tom!) and taught Drew how to install it.
Then he left Drew and I to install our electrical boxes and the wires leading to them. It was actually pretty easy. It also made everything overall easier for us since we knew the plan backwards and forwards and we didn’t have to explain our incredibly complicated and amateur electrical plan to a professional who had other things to worry about.
Then we (meaning Drew) called up Tom and met with him to look over our work. From there, Tom installed our electrical box and “did all the complicated stuff” of building a circuit box, installing all of the breakers, wiring the supply line to the box and explaining 3-way switches to Drew. Then Drew and I finished up the rough wiring by installing some junction boxes. We also went through the house and installed these metal wiring plates that get installed directly over a wire or a pipe so it will be impossible for us to drill into a live wire. Ouch!
And that was it! Working with Tom (I guess indirectly on my part, haha) was fantastic! It was nice for something to go smoothly for once. Honestly, this was way easier than either of us had expected for having hired a professional. We were thinking we would have to explain the whole project to Tom and then watch over his shoulder to make sure he was installing it the way we needed it. Nope! No such troubles. Tom, just as calm as you please, explained how to wire an outlet, how to wire a switch, and how to put together an electrical system in the simplest way he could, and then left us to install our plan the way we wanted. It was a great arrangement for everyone.
Now we’re working on the walls. We’ll dedicate a whole post to that coming up. Stay tuned..
Long time no write. Things have certainly been busy! Just, not so much house-wise.. Though I will say we’re currently we’re working on the walls! I’ll get to that in another post, but for now let’s focus on tiny house plumbing.
Plumbing. Where on earth to start? First, we had to determine the piping layout/design. We finalized where we wanted our tub to be (whatever we end up using) and chose the definitive spots for our bathroom and kitchen sinks.
We also determined what sort of water pumping/filtration system we would be using. Being that we are considering going off-grid sometime in the future, we were looking for a system that minimizes our electrical usage, and preferably does not require in-line water pressure. We found a few gravity powered filtration systems that seemed to fit the bill. We decided to go with Berkey water filters. Berkey makes a kind of water filter that has been shown to be so effective it can remove protozoa, trace minerals, bacteria, and even viruses in the water. Being that viruses are so incredibly small, this is a very impressive feat for a filter that only requires gravity to operate. We’ve also read that a lot of tiny housers have used Berkeys for its convenience and safety, which helped back up our decision.
Our plan is to rig up a stainless steel tank with about 4-6 of these filters (since the number of filters increases the amount of available water). This tank will drip into a large 40 gallon fresh water holding tank that we’re going to store in the dead space in the corner of our kitchen. Most people don’t realize that this is prime real estate in galley-style kitchens! Many big homes have a lazy Susan (or a corner pantry), but since we don’t need one, we can use this space to store our water filtration.
After all that was figured out (which took a boatload of research), we then had to determine what materials we wanted to use for our piping. We knew we were against using CPVC because of the chlorination process and the use of pthalates and heavy metals needed to produce the pipe. We also determined copper wasn’t that great either because it could leach copper into the water supply – and while this is good for anti-bacterial applications, our water would already be pure because of our pre-filter. High copper has also been connected to Alzheimer’s and other related cognitive conditions, so we figured we wouldn’t take our chances. Besides the possible health concerns, a few studies have found that copper pipes have been failing far sooner than previously expected because of premature pin-hole leaks.
We would have loved to use stainless steel, but not only could we not find any, what little we did find (for like dairy production and such) was way too expensive and hilariously difficult to work with.
So we turned to PEX.
(Warning: mildly intensive chemistry discussion for the next few paragraphs. If you’re into that kind of stuff, stick around, if not, scroll down to the picture of the PEX pipe.)
For those of you who don’t know, PEX is a fairly new plastic piping product. The fact that it was plastic made us discount it almost straight away at first, but the more we looked around, the more we learned about it.
We initially hesitated on PEX because we’ve read a great deal of research about plastic leaching harmful chemicals into drinking water. This is to be expected with almost any product, plastic or metal. However, there is no 100% conclusive way to determine what will end up in your drinking water through your pipes, or even where it came from in the first place.
PEX, however, is a little different than other plastic pipe products. Unlike PVC, which is one of the most toxic plastics out there, PEX is made from LDPE, which is #2 plastic. Several types of food-service containers are made out of this sample plastic, and as far as plastic goes, this type tends to be pretty safe. However, even if LDPE is a fairly inert plastic on its own; the toxicity of a given plastic has less to do with what type of plastic you’re using and everything to do with the additives.
PVC, for example, is rather brittle or soft and rubbery depending on what it is used in. In order for PVC to have any of those properties, additives need to be mixed into the plastic and chemically bonded with the plastic in order to reinforce it and prepare it for sale as a certain product. These PVC additives can very often be hormone-disrupting chemicals that can throw off human biochemistry, or the biochemistry of chemical-sensitive animals. Sometimes these additives can even be heavy metals like lead. In the case of PVC, the additives are typically loosely bonded to the plastic, which means they can fall out of the pipe into drinking water.
PEX stands for “cross-linked polyethylene”, which means “plastic that has been chemically bonded to itself”. You don’t need to know how this process works, but suffice it to say, this plastic is produced by making plastic arrange itself into a shape like a roll of chain linked fence. This can be done by either adding chemicals to the raw plastic, or, even better, by irradiating it with a high frequency light. This final type of PEX is called PEX-C, and has recently replaced copper and PVC piping in terms of availability, ease of use, and, best of all, cleanliness!
We found a recent study headed by Dr. Andrew Whelton of Perdue university that tested several different types of PEX pipes and seemed to demonstrate that PEX-C pipes were more resistant to abrasive chemicals used in water treatment, leached fewer chemicals and less harmful compounds than other types of PEX pipes, and proved to be more chemically inert overall. Not only were there fewer chemicals used in its production, but fewer of them made it into the drinking water! This sounded perfect to us after several weeks of botched research.
Now we had the hard part done. It was time to install everything! We drilled 3/4” inch holes in all of the studs where we wanted the pipe to run. Another great feature of PEX is that it feels like playing with LEGOs. It can be cut with a simple utility knife, and it can be bent around corners without fittings. We bought a few 90 degree bend moulds that allowed us to bend the pipe and keep it held at that angle whenever we needed the pipe to stick out of the wall or curve around a corner.
The fittings for PEX are also hilariously toy-like. Shark Bite makes a fitting that you literally just push onto the pipe for a permanent fit. Kinda like tinker toys. However, we went with crimp fittings from Viega because they are made with an even lower lead content than the low-lead fittings sold off the shelves these days. Crimp fittings are only slightly more complicated and require a vice grip to install, but they go on very quickly and without much of a fuss. We were able to pick them up locally from a Ferguson plumbing supply store.
Wherever we had an appliance, we installed a support plate that installed between the studs and provided a hole that the protruding pipe could rest on for support. This makes it so the water pressure doesn’t vibrate the pipe so much that it gets damaged. We also added foam insulation around our hot water lines.
And now that’s mostly done! We left a pair of pipes hanging out of the wall for the hot water heater that we will attach once the wall where the heater goes is installed. All that’s left now is the drainage system, which we can install once we know the dimensions of our tub…